Chilean poets faced a rising tide of fascism after the 1973 coup. A new play, Distant Star, adapted by the theater company Caborca from Robert Bolaño‘s landmark 1993 Spanish novel, invites a New York audience into how a fictionalized circle of poets responded. It’s tricky to translate Spanish into English, and vexing to condense a novel into play. But what isn’t lost in translation and adaption are lessons about coping with a surge of right wing extremism. It’s apt to look back to the ’70s in Chile, and worth the trek to Abrons Art Center.
Susan Sontag was not given to gushy praise, which makes it impressive that she deemed Robert Bolaño “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish speaking world.” In his novels, a frenetic voice quickly veers from mirth and revelry to jarring brutality. Bolaño writes like a pendulum. It’s fitting for a writer forced to internalize a dramatic swing to the right, and imprisoned for speaking out. And this staging, disconcerting in its swings between these poles, does justice to Bolaño‘s style.
The play opens by sketching out the milieu of Chilean poetry before the coup. The audience meets a circle of young and rising poets, learns their rivalries and crushes, and discovers the vibes of the competing workshops where they hone their craft. They mercilessly criticize each other’s work, opening up the painful chasm between their aspirations to write excellent poetry and their all-too-human limitations.
Everything changes after the coup. A review is not supposed to give away spoilers, but suffice to say it gets bad. This play probes how creative spirits deal with shit hitting the fan politically. And like a real-life workshop, it reveals the gap between their lofty aspirations to be courageous, and their fragility as frightened humans attempting to survive in a dog-eat-dog crisis.
And yet, a poetic acts twinkles like a star in this darkness. A daredevil poet named Carlos Wieder gets into a plane and writes verse in the sky. Skywriting feels like a quaint way to reach the masses now that we have Twitter, but the point is that it was gusty and ingenious. He defied the regime in the name of poetry.
The idea of skywriting poetry presents a staging challenge; to state the obvious, the theater has a roof. But as the adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and it was exciting to see how the creative team tackled skywriting. They created smoke, an actor held a camera, and footage from that camera got projected onto the wall. It was meta; it was simulacrum; but it worked. And it made the act of skywriting vivid and tangible in a way that a novel’s words on a page can’t.
But the patina of this poetic act is tarnished by some atrocious acts that Wieder commits against other poets. The cast grapples with how the coup and fascism’s rise normalizes his brutality. Wieder’s audacity swings both ways — to repeat the pendulum analogy — from artistic daring to the temerity to perpetrate crimes against his compatriots.
Wieder dramatizes how artistic talent can painfully coexist with a broken moral compass. Just as we lament the shadows cast over Bill Cosby’s comedy, Woody Allen’s films, Michael Jackson’s music, and Pablo Picasso’s paintings, his skywriting is darkened by his wrongdoings.
The most inventive aspect of Caborca’s staging is the use of the camera, often held by one of the performers to depict what we are witnessing from a different angle and projected onto a nearby wall. There is something haunting about seeing a body laying right there in the flesh, and its lack of connection with the cooler, mediated image on the wall.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: “but the thought is one thing, the deed is another, and another yet is the image of the deed. The wheel of causality does not roll between then.” These camera games reveal such disconnections. The ease with which humans can entertain sinister thoughts and, let’s be honest, the ease of turning them into deeds, stands in sharp relief with the difficulty of bearing witness to their images.
In another vignette, poets sip and chat. Meanwhile, a painful image is projected on the wall beneath them. The juxtaposition articulates how easily life and coffee talk can go on as fascism rises and as victims fall.
One might criticize the play for lacking a coherent, linear structure. But to be fair, it’s mirroring Bolaño’s novel and the staging is trying to achieve specific effects a more conventional plot can’t. Some people want theater to spoon-feed them easy-to-grasp parables. And they want it wrapped up with a nice bow. This is called children’s theater. We outgrow it because dreamlike sequences allow us to explore raw emotions and psychological conundrums that conventional forms can’t. There is no way the gap between image and deed — or the swings between harsh brutality and sweet poetry — could be dramatized unless coherency got bent.
Distant Star continues at the Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 1.